BFI FLARE REVIEW: ‘Tove’ (2021) Lesbian Artists and Gay Moomins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Alma Pöysti’s terrific performance as Tove, where her quiet affinity feels seismic, is effervescent.”

Zaida Bergroth’s stunning biopic charmingly centres on artist and writer Tove Jansson’s (Alma Pöysti) bohemian life. Tove is a stylish period biography that gives a whole new perspective to the Moomins. Exuberantly visual in its charting of the artists’ life, Tove is a glowing biopic that’s visual vision is as gently magical as the world of the Moomins.

In 1940s Helsinki, the end of the war marks a reinvigoration of artistic freedom, rendered against a delicate mid-century backdrop Bergroth’s film centres on a reverent lesbian romance defined by artistic license. Lost amongst the fabric of a painting smock, Tove’s paintbrush dances across canvases while cigarette smoke twirls in the air above her. She is an artist working to her own definition of perfection as the establishment turns up their nose, that is, bar one upper-class theatre director: Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). Magnetised to each-other, the pair perfectly complement one another: a blonde, a brunette, a height difference and a shared love for the arts.

Ink blotted fingertips trace through the late forties and early fifties as Tove’s artistic career begins to blossom beyond her imagination. Through every gathering of bustling bodies, Tove’s eyes, and the camera’s gaze, always comes to rest on Vivica in a crowd, no matter how many bodies separate them. Pöysti and Kosonen’s exhilarant chemistry underscores the biopic with a seductive flare. Alongside the pair, Atos (Shanti Roney) is a surprisingly sweet male counterpart as Tove’s open-relationship partner. Although she finds Atos by her side, Trove frames its leading lady besotted with the brunette woman with the strong jaw. 

Tove and Vivica lay together in bed, they're naked but covered by an emerald green bed cover. both smiling, vivicia is holding the cigarette they're sharing
Tove and Vivica – Courtesy of BFI Flare

With sugar and liquor in her bloodstream, Tove dances surrounded by women. Perfectly scoring these moments, composer Matti Bye’s intricate sound design crafts a beat that pulses alongside Tove’s heartbeat. Rhythmic keys play over a quick-paced drum beat, matching sound to mood, then silence falls as Tove is reacquainted with the canvas she left on the easel. Tove’s visual poeticism is also beautifully succinct, like when Tove is making shadow puppets against her wall: she controls a paper ghost’s shadow gliding across her wall. Reminiscent of how Vivica had written she felt like a ghost drifting through Parisian streets without Tove on her arm. This notion of feeling invisible as a lesbian in the forties is brief and rather poignantly subtle, thankfully it isn’t a repeated visual metaphor. Instead, Tove most often occupies itself with freeing sequences of Tove’s beguiling of desire amongst communities of other artistic women. 

The intensity of Tove’s enamoured state is sharply executed by editor Samu Heikkilä, Bergroth’s frequent collaborator, who lingers with just the right patience and also seeps beautifully into Eeva Putro’s well-paced script. Honouring Tove’s creative mind, she describes her infatuation with Vivica – “it was like an irresistibly beautiful dragon had arrived, it just attacked and flew away with me” – like a mystifying fairytale. Tove’s perspective on herself and the world around her is tightly woven throughout the script, the choice of showing and not explaining Tove’s constantly morphing abstract self-portraits is another ingenious touch from Bergroth.

Between boisterous parties and late nights sketching, it’s hard to tell whether the sunlight spewing into her art studio home, casting Tove’s hair into a golden halo, is the sunrise or sunset. Bergroth’s camera finds an enchanting intimacy while the sun is low; breathless with sleep tousled hair, Tove and Vivica are captured so intimately as they undress each other slowly. They are two lovers at home with each other’s bodies, the sensuality of their touches as deliberate and gentle as Tove’s brushstrokes.

Alma Pöysti’s terrific performance as Tove, where her quiet affinity feels seismic, is effervescent. This decade of Tove’s life is concentrated with sensuous closeness and queer-coded art against a gloriously framed period backdrop. With a gloriously framed period backdrop, Bergroth’s Tove is a wonderful biopic that honours the work of the beloved cartoon artist and her fruitful life with its own stylistic merit. Tove confirms: Moomins are gay icons.

Tove is screening as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021 until 28 March. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

Dir: Zaida Bergroth

Prod: Aleksi Bardy and Andrea Reuter

Wri: Eeva Putro

Cast: Alma Pöysti, Krista Kosonen and Shanti Roney

Images Courtesy of BFI Flare 2021 Festival